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Food & Wine

Some answers to frequently asked wine questions

I am often referred to as the "Wine Guy," and as a consequence I sometimes become the "Answer Man."

The pamphlet "101 Wine Tips," by Martin Stone of the American Wine Cellars Wine Club, provides good answers to many wine questions.

Some of the information in this column may be familiar, but I hope I can clear up a few items for you.

• The type of grape is on the label of a bottle, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir or Chardonnay. There are thousands of varietals grown throughout the world, but there are only nine major ones. In the U.S., if the grape varietal is on the label, the bottle must contain at least 75 percent of that grape.

• The glass you use does make a difference. The shape and the size of the bowl allows greater or less breathing and aroma to escape, depending on the wine.

The narrow Champagne flute, for instance, forces the tiny bubbles to rise from the center. Glasses are held by the stem to prevent improper warming of the wine but also in my case to keep my sometimes-greasy fingers off the glass.

• The best temperature for wine is obviously a personal choice, but there are some guidelines. Champagne is probably best around 45 F and Chardonnay, other whites and Rosés from 45 F to 50 F. Many people like big reds at room temperature, but I prefer them at 65 F. Cold masks flaws, and if the wine is lacking in quality, cold is good. But if you have an exceptional bottle and it is served too cold, your flavors could be lost.

• When to decant is always an issue and many never bother to do it at all. Hold the bottle to the light and see if there is any sediment on the bottom. If there is a lot, decant. The sediment won't hurt you, but it makes the wine chewy and cloudy.

I was recently asked if there were wine I would like to drink. I replied I had not tasted a Romanee Conti, Romanee Conti. It is considered one of the rarest and most expensive wines in the world. My friend went to his cellar and returned with a 1972. This bottle sells for a minimum of $5,000. He proceeded to empty the entire bottle, sediment and all, into a measuring cup and pour it back and forth between bottle and cup until he deemed the wine ready to drink. I was stunned, but I was not about to say anything. So it boils down to whatever you think is right.

• Never pop the cork – pull it out gently. If you are too aggressive, the wine will sometimes follow the cork out of the bottle. When opening Champagne, cork popping is bad form and dangerous. Always cover the cork with a towel and remove slowly, preventing a gaseous explosion that wastes Champagne and allows the cork to go flying somewhere. When you pour a wine, don't fill the glass. A third full is about right, and start with the ladies first. If you are in a restaurant and the waiter fills your glass, you can be sure he or she is either hustling another bottle or is never going to fill it again.

• You often hear the term "legs," when the liquid adheres to sides of the glass. This is not necessarily a good or bad thing. The more alcohol in the wine, the more legs on the glass. With too much alcohol, you have what is called a "hot" wine.

• When serving wine, inexpensive usually should go first, sweet before dry and young before old. Otherwise the first wines will suffer in comparison.

A common problem is what to do with a bottle a guest brings. If the guest states, "I want to have this bottle tonight," you are stuck. If it doesn't go with the meal, serve it before dinner. If it does and you already have chosen the wines, just add a glass. Most likely your guest will say you can have this bottle tonight if it fits and if not have it with me another time or whenever you want.

• When dining out, it is always OK to ask for help from the waiter or wine steward. If a really expensive bottle is recommended, don't feel obligated to buy it.

Years ago a friend was dining on the French Riviera and asked the sommelier to bring a nice bottle of wine for the table. After consuming it, he was presented with a $900 wine bill. The moral of the story is don't give an open-ended request, always check the price and don't be intimidated to ask for something in your price range.

When presented with the cork, don't smell it. Corks sometimes smell tainted, yet the wine is perfect. Look at it and if it looks soft, ask the server to check the wine. If presented with a screw cap, I really don't know what you should do. Maybe say thanks?

• When pairing food and wine at home, drink what you like, no matter what the rules say. When dining out, it is best to get a consensus of what the other diners are eating and order accordingly.

Steve Hicks is a wine adviser and consultant who lives in Los Altos Hills. For more information, e-mail This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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